The End of Life for Solar Panels

So you’ve started thinking seriously about making the switch to solar power. Congrats! That means you’re already well-aware of the many reasons why going solar in 2024 makes so much sense. Still, if you’re like most of our clients, you may have a few lingering questions.  What happens with the panels when they reach the end of their useful life? Are they recyclable? What exactly am I going to end up on the hook for? All good questions. We’re here to help you answer them.

So, how long do solar panels last, exactly?

Solar panels are incredibly durable, typically lasting between 30 to 40 years. Of course, it’s never too early to begin thinking about what happens once they reach their end of life.

How do people currently handle their end-of-life solar panels?

These days, panels frequently end up in landfills. That’s largely due to their construction. Panels are made up of layers of different materials, which are then sealed—helpful for keeping the technology insulated from the elements, not so much for making them easy to disassemble for recycling. On average, only about 10 percent of solar panel components are recycled today. That’s problematic, because panels contain some hazardous materials, such as cadmium and lead, which ideally shouldn’t end up in landfills.

So what’s the solution?

The good news is that, as solar power increases, there will be both an increased demand for solar panel materials, as well as an increase in the number of panels reaching their end of useful life. Those panels, which contain useful raw materials, will be great candidates for recycling. In other words, there’s lots of hope for the economics of solar-panel recycling in the future. In fact, we’re already seeing signs of a burgeoning solar recycling industry. According to one industry report, the value of recycled solar-panel materials is expected to grow from $170 million this year to $2.7 billion in 2030. By 2050, that number could reach $15 billion. Governments are also stepping in to help boost the industry. In Washington state, for instance, lawmakers have passed a bill requiring solar manufacturers to fund collection and recycling of panels.

What components of the panels are most recyclable?

Silver and silicon are among the most valuable materials contained in the panels, though they’re also the hardest to access. Then you have the glass, which makes up 75 percent of the weight of a panel, and other metals such as the aluminum frame and copper. All told, somewhere between 90 to 95 percent of a solar panel’s components are recyclable.

Anything else I need to know?

The important thing to remember is that solar panels are not just recyclable, but they’re also highly valuable, even at the end of their life. Recycling can provide the raw materials for the next generation of panels, which also reduces the need to mine additional heavy metals.

When a panel reaches the end of its useful life, you aren’t left with a huge piece of trash. Instead, you’ve got a piece of technology with plenty of salvage value, thanks to the internal components. At BAI, we’re here to help guide you with your solar panel recycling needs when the time comes.